A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Puzzle

Those puzzles in the 90s which were really tricks… I remember one which had a rod-like piece and another piece to put it into. If you got it just right, apparently, it would catch on something and be pulled into the slot. Was it a magnet? An elastic band? You couldn’t see inside it, but that Guy could do it and one by one, others cottoned on, too.

Of course the trick was to realise that there was no trick except to squeeze the end of the rod with your thumb and forefinger until it was propelled into the slot and then you had to propagate the trick by pretending that you’d found the trick (which, of course, you actually had). As it was passed round the group, more people would get it and would congratulate each other and feign help to the rest who couldn’t until, eventually, marked out by their intellectual inferiority, they were killed.

Response to a writing exercise at work.

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Physical injury

I’ve never broken a bone or been in hospital (as a patient) or even had stitches. Once I came close, uncharacteristically throwing myself into the six-yard box to head the ball and connecting only with another boy’s boot just above my left eye. The blood was impressive and the school nurse suggested I might need a butterfly stitch but they couldn’t get hold of my dad to take me to hospital so I just sat somewhere quiet until the blood stopped and then I went home. My dad was there – uncharacteristically, because usually he was out at work from 7am to 8pm – I don’t know why he was home that day or why he didn’t answer the call from the school.

Response to a writing exercise at work.

Sticky

My favourite joke, which I’m still kind of waiting for my daughters to get, is: ‘What’s brown and sticky?’ ‘A stick.’

Their humour is even less sophisticated. Iris likes knock-knock jokes but her punchlines never have anything to do with the name of the person at the door. Edith’s favourite knock-knock joke is ‘Knock, knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Alec.’ ‘Alec who?’ [sings] ‘I like to move it move it, I like to move it move it, I like to… move it!’

Together, their humour takes on slapsticky elements. They recently had great fun filling everyone’s shoes – including the poor child-minder’s – with dropped needles from our Christmas tree. What fun we had; how we laughed.

Response to a writing exercise at work.

Thin skin

I didn’t even notice them at first. Then I realised I had seven or eight tiny wounds – for want of a less significant word – on my body. Fingers, forearm, torso, thigh. Not nicks from blades or splinters – I am not a carpenter or a DIY enthusiast. I can only think they are from scraping against the normal machinery of everyday life – doorways, window latches, milk bottle tops – and my skin punctured. Nothing alarming, but I can’t trust my skin any more. It is become weak, a liability.
Living in this condition is fraught. Everything is suddenly a threat to my biological integrity. I worry about each object around me: will it break me? split the skin that holds me in? dissolve the distinction between insides and outside? Will it cause me to bleed?
Despite my efforts, the small painless wounds multiply. In patches, my skin looks like cracked ice, a desert road, torn tissue paper coming unstuck like a child’s collage. I am obsessed. I stare at them constantly, trace the red-stained cracks with my bloodied fingertips. It is a new measure of time, and the only one that counts, counting down to my entire body being covered in this punctuation.
Everywhere I go, all the time. At home I undress and note the new ones, chart the extent of the growing splits and wonder if there is anything that could help me. At work, I do not work, and my colleagues are become more distant than ever. I am tetchy, preoccupied, I don’t even try to find the right volume for my voice, whether complaining about the noise or attempting to engage in productive conversation. Do they see my skin? I see their contempt. They say I am over-sensitive, and I think that I could not be anything else.

This is the story I wrote en route to and at The Story 2016.

the story

I had a lovely soak in the bath this morning. Actually, it was just after 12, so technically this afternoon, but it followed breakfast, dinosaur games, tidying up a robot factory, coffee, crosswords, peace negotiations and rewarding diplomatic behaviour. I’m told that the Japanese particularly understand the benefits of a good soak, separating the cleaning from the soaking by having a shower first to get rid of the dirt and then slipping into the tub. Because they are clean when they get in, the bath water can be shared, but it also means that the soak can be entirely given over to relaxing, switching off, meditating, shedding off the cares of the day.the story 2016
For many of my colleagues and me, the intellectual equivalent of a long soak in the bath is The Story, a day of 20-minute talks at Conway Hall in central London. This year’s edition was yesterday, and it began to have benefits before I’d even arrived, as I wrote a little story on the way in (finished off in my seat in the hall). It’s astonishing how little writing I do at work despite having the word Writer in my job title. So finding the freedom to sketch out a two-page piece of fiction was delightful. Even if the story wasn’t that good…
Actually a development at work recently has been the introduction of a creative writing exercise for my team every week. A simple creative prompt is given and we all scribble down some words, or a picture, or even a story. For me, the outputs are mixed, but that’s ok – when they are bad, they get disposed of discreetly; the better ones I might put up here.
And there is something of that same sense of freedom and creativity about the atmosphere at The Story that lends encouragement and inspiration to the writer within. Of the dozen talks yesterday, two or three really stood out. Dallas Campbell gave an entertaining summary of a tv show he’s been making about the history of the spacesuit, featuring a real cosmonaut spacesuit, and Daniel Meadows combined video and audio recordings from his archives with commentary in person to present his photographic work in the warmest and loveliest way imaginable.
Dedicated, talented people talking about their work or stories within their work… and most of us in the audience felt some affinity, if not with their achievements, then with their aspirations and ambitions.
But what happens when you lift yourself out of the warm soak and return to the normal environment of the chilly air, perhaps via the rough embrace of a towel…?
Well, for me, the right response is a renewed conviction that I have to try to develop my writing, find more of a voice, a niche, and try to make something creditable from my hopelessly irrepressible need to write. It’s not that I have any particular belief in my abilities, more that writing is the best way I have to engage with the world, and when I’m not writing, I feel so very awkward and ill-fitting in it. But if I’m going to write, I’d rather be a good writer than a poor one, so it deserves a bit of effort.
To that end, I am going to write more here this year. Stories, sketches, ideas and thoughts. I can’t vouch for the quality, but I’m hoping that practice will make … better, at least. And if it doesn’t, then I’ll just have to run another bath.

Jupiter rises

They were late. It didn’t crystallise into words or a thought in his mind, but he let out a dissatisfied grunt. Or perhaps the grunt was a response to some immanent sense of arrival because the prow of the boat immediately appeared, as if summoned, from behind the rocks off to his right. Arrival being no more satisfactory than lateness, he let out another grunt.

He had done his jobs. All was ready. They would sail the boat in, manoeuvre it alongside the jetty that thrust into the natural harbour, and they would tie their lines to the bollards using newly-learned knots. Then the teenagers would grab their rucksacks and jostle down on to the jetty and ashore. Their teacher would follow more slowly, carrying a larger rucksack and an icebox filled with plastic bottles of Coke and Fanta. Then Mark would appear, tidying the deck behind them and running a hand through his hair, before putting his other hand on the rail of the boat, jumping down to the jetty, which would rock, and leading the group to the shingled fringe of the treeline at the edge of the island where a horseshoe of small, grubby wooden beach huts waited to accommodate them for the night. A nice, safe little adventure.

The boat was almost entirely in view now, and he was about to lower his binoculars and retreat to an out-of-the-way ramshackle shed at the centre of the island, when he stopped.

She was standing at the back of the boat, hand on tiller, steering them in, turning the boat towards him now, though still a distance away. He couldn’t see her clearly, the binoculars had started trembling, and he felt uneasy about straining so hard to make her out. She was one of the students, tall for whatever age she might be, but with less to her than an adult of the same height. Her hair might have been black or brown or pink. All he could really see at this distance was her black top under the thin red lines of the life-vest – he couldn’t distinguish whether it was a T-shirt or some other style of top that he didn’t know the name for, but he could see it was black. Except that he was sure that it was not black at all, but gold. He was absolutely certain that if a gold top was at that distance, across water, seen through shaking binoculars, with the sun at precisely that angle, such that it was starting to make his eyes strain and moisten just a little at the corners, then that particular gold top, under a red life-vest, would appear black. He was sure of it.

 

The sun’s light was dispersing woefully across the horizon behind the sea behind the trees. The tin of chicken and vegetable soup that he had put out on the trestle table at the centre of his shed in the morning was unopened. He stood at the window, but not seeing anything except the boat and her steering it, laughing as she did, calling to her friends. He felt he could see her properly now, although he still couldn’t really distinguish the features of her face or the colour of her hair. But her top was golden, as he had known it would be.

He heard the sounds of teenage boys on the path outside – those deep, low voices jostling in conversation, looking for weaknesses in their friends and trying to disguise their own, even though they didn’t really know what they were yet. He was plucked ungently back to the world before him.

There was a lull in the sound of their voices. He could sense them forget about baiting each other and turn their attention to his home. He dreaded this part, but Mark insisted on sending up a small group of boys – always the boys – to bring him his provisions. Tins, mostly: soup, beans, fruit cocktail in syrup; a loaf of bread, UHT milk, and butter; tea, sugar; loo roll, soap… He slumped below his window, back to the wall, and waited for them to go away.

“Who could live here all the time?”

“Fucking loser.”

“We just leave the stuff outside the door, right?”

“Is he there, do you think?”

“We just leave it here.”

“What’s he getting anyway?”

“I don’t think we should—”

“Shit – look at this. I hope we’re not getting this bollocks for our tea.”

“I don’t think we’ll be getting fried chicken, mate.”

“Or pepperoni deep-crust.”

They were rummaging through the boxes and bags. This was normal. Sometimes, depending on the group, they would tip everything out. Throw the toilet paper around. Other times, they’d get bored and bugger off. The bolt on the shed door had always – so far – been enough to put them off trying to come in.

“What on fucking earth are you all doing?”

A girl’s voice. Her voice. Black gold treasure voice. He turned, half-rising, just his eyes above the sill. It was her.

“Shit, he’s there!”

“Jesus.”

“Come on.”

“He was hiding the whole fucking time.”

“Fucking loser.”

“Pervert. Paedo.”

“Let’s just go.”

He thought he would stand up, turn his back to the window and walk towards the camp-bed on the other side of the shed, taking advantage of the dimming light and the grimy glass pane to fade out of view. But he couldn’t let go of the sight of her, only her, framed between trees with just a few of the brightest stars (though he knew that some stars were actually planets) starting to emerge in the bruising sky behind her.

He knew he was ignoring them, provoking them, these man-childs with their hormonal mixtures of strength and fear and bravado and idiocy. He knew better. He should step back.

“Hey! You gonna come and get your shit, then?”

“Leave him alone, Josh, mate.”

It was only the one kid who wanted trouble. The others weren’t interested and were looking for a way out. She was still on the path that came up through the scrubby trees between the jetty and his shed. Why had she followed them up here? She wasn’t trying to steer them away, but she wasn’t egging them on, either. Her voice had been calm and sardonic, not shocked or scared. Her mouth was twisted in what might have been a scorn or a smile. It was beautiful.

The boys lost interest. They turned away, headed back to the path, to where she was. Josh was still grasping a can of soup in his hand. Did he think he was going to nick it? Or had he just forgotten he was holding it?

“Better go, Josh.” A mocking tone in her voice this time. She knew what was going on here – these boys, they wanted to impress her. They all wanted to impress her, always. And sometimes she was impressed by them. But she was the girl they each wanted to be noticed by. Had she noticed him?

“Fucking loser,” Josh said again. “Here’s your sad fucking loser food.” And he lobbed the can towards the shed.

It’s hard to throw a full can of soup much harder than you intend, but perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps Josh had meant to just hit the wall or the door with the can. Perhaps he’d meant it to roll into the threadbare grass in front of the shed. Perhaps it was hard to judge the distance in the evening murk, far from any unnatural light. But perhaps he also meant for it to hit the window – or at least for there to be a reasonable chance that it might. They all ran then, the shits, as the thin glass shattered into his face and the can followed through with its momentum and hit the bridge of his nose, spiking one shard of pane into his flesh.

 

He peered at himself in the tiny mirror that hung above his tiny fridge. This time the words were fully formed, jangling around his head: “fucking loser”. He had stuck an old and dusty, too-small plaster over the cut on his nose but there was blood on his face and on his hands, too. He looked down, not wanting to see the familiarly odd reflection of his own image any more. There was blood on the floor, too, and glass splinters. Where was that can? The one on the table was the one from this morning, now among constellations of specks of broken glass. He got down on his hands and knees to look for the other one. He hadn’t thought to light the oil lamp and it was almost too dark to see anything but he thought he saw it under the cooker. He reached his arm under, shifting his weight to ease the discomfort of his nose – his whole face, in fact – and lying on the hard flat floor like an idiot, a joke, a fucking loser.

The knock on the door was not unexpected but it was deeply unwelcome. He dropped his head on to his shoulder, still lying on the floor. Couldn’t be bothered to talk to Mark or the teacher or whoever it was had come to apologise for the lads’ behaviour. He really hoped it wasn’t Josh: abuse or apology, either would be humiliating. Fuck off, he shouted into the cavernous vacuum of his head; let me alone.

“Sorry.”

It wasn’t an adult voice, nor a boy’s. It was a calm, less sardonic voice now. Golden black tones.

“Are you there?” Was there concern in that question? He decided there might be.

Silence without. Was she gone? He couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his heart thumping and the blood blasting scathingly through his ears. Was that the bolt being tested? He put his chin nearer his chest, trying to look back along his prostrate body towards the door. He put his free hand on the floor – he had to get up, but his other hand had just found the can of soup.

The door opened.

 

Two cold cups of tea. The provisions were stacked against the wall of his shed, inside but not in the fridge or in the cupboard or on the shelf; unwanted reminders of everything else. They hadn’t said much – he never could and she seemed oddly unsure, or sure in uncertainty, testing herself. As if she had dared herself to come, or perhaps someone else had dared her.

If that someone had asked how they had then got to this point, he would not have been able to say. But here they were, in his shed with the oil lamp the only point of light alive on the island, him sitting on the edge of his camp-bed, she dabbing at his bloodied face with the dampened corner of his tea towel. He kept flinching – not because it hurt.

She was close, her face closer than any had been to his for as long as he could remember. Closer than he had ever imagined. Unbearably intimately close. He couldn’t quite look at her face. Her eyes. Their lashes. His fingers tightened on the can still gripped in his hand. He wanted to touch her, gently, almost without touching, as she was touching him with the towel – but he didn’t know how.

She was finishing up. Looking more intently at his face to see, without seeing him, if there were any flecks of blood she had missed. It was over. She was leaving. She was walking away down the path in the moonlight and finding her beach hut and going in without waking her friend and sleeping and getting up and getting on the boat and sailing them all away from him.

“Better go,” she murmured, drawing back onto her heels.

The broken silence was his cue. He pushed his face towards hers and brought his hand round to the back of her head. The soup can jarred against her skull and she flinched away.

“No,” he said, pointlessly.

She stood up.

“No,” he said, stung by rejection, filling with the amplified, multiplied, venomous contempt of the boys and of Mark and of her and of the entire rest of the human race.

He followed her out of the door and into the night and caught hold of her with his free hand. She turned, fast, as if she was going to hit him but her hands stayed down and as her face came in front of his once more, he thought he saw the faintest softening at the edges of her eyes and her mouth, as if there was a smile in waiting, as if this was all part of a plan. He decided it might be.

 

The tin of soup lay in the mud a couple of metres away. He had stopped her taking off her golden top. He hadn’t stopped her taking off anything else. He pushed at the waistband of his trousers. He heard her say “No”, but as if from a hundred yards away across still water. Had she changed her mind? No, he was in the wrong place, that was all. Ok.

Only now and under the cover of a glittering, isolated darkness could he say something as alien and preposterous as “I love you” and mean it, but already they were dismantling language with their tongues and their hands and before he could say anything, those words and all other words had given up their meanings; their shared, complicit silence punctuated only with the physicality of two bodies in space.

For seconds, possibly hours, at a time, his consciousness was entirely hers – there was nothing beyond the tips of his senses. But sometimes he drifted back into a detached kind of consciousness and saw the scene from above himself. She was on her back on the ground; he was on top. Pushing. Driving. Driving her, deeper, down to the dirt. Her hands were on his back, setting the pace, keeping the rhythm, pulling him down, pulling herself, deeper. They were searching, deeper. Perhaps they needed, deeper, to find one last word, deeper, that retained some element of meaning, deeper, before they could come apart and resurface.

He couldn’t find the word. She sank further into the ground and he could feel the dirt on his hips each time he pushed down, on and in to her. Now he couldn’t see her any more, despite the sky lightening with the dawn, deeper… Deeper, and she was gone. Too far below. He kept on thrusting into the mud, searching for her, for a word, a trace, a flicker of gold. But he couldn’t find her and he didn’t yet know how to call her back.

 

He was still there, pushing feebly at the ground, when the sun came up. At some point, he stopped and just lay exhausted on top of the earth.

He wondered what Mark would say if he found him here like this, and he laughed at last. There would be strong words; a lecture. Lots about second chances and a decent job and allowances made, and not even being expected to talk to the kids any more, let alone teach them anything, and about being given a place to live nine months of the year and everything he needed like food and loo roll, and about letting people down and letting himself down and so on and on for a very long time. There is nothing so unbearably smug as a successful younger brother.

He pulled himself out of the mud and up to his feet. He pulled up his trousers and walked down the path through the scrubby trees to the harbour. All was ready. He looked out over the water and let out a satisfied grunt. They were late.

 

Caveat

This story started as an uncomfortable dream, which I had maybe a dozen years ago. The island, the gold/black top, the sinking into the dirt were all in there. I tried writing it down when I woke up, and kept hold of that draft for a few years before deleting it because it still made me uncomfortable. Earlier this year I thought of it again in the night and got out of bed in the dark to scribble in my notebook. It seemed possible to finish and refine it into a story at last. Having recently seen a competition for short stories, I finished it for that deadline and it seemed rude not to then enter. It did not win.

A tale of a shipwreck

Having spent much of yesterday in a state of baffled disbelief, this overwrought analogy came to mind – it seemed quite profound this morning; I’m not so sure now…

Red Duster

(Pat McDonald, flickr)

Let me tell you a story about a ship: HMS Economy. She has a long and proud naval history, but now she is (mostly) a civilian vessel. She is run by the Captain, and every so often the crew and the passengers on board vote whether to sail under a red flag or a blue one. When they have voted, the Captain with the relevant flag goes to the ageing figurehead at the prow, and receives her blessing to take the helm.

What do the flags’ colours signify? When the passengers and crew feel that HMS Economy is in danger, they tend to vote for the blue flag. These Captains are hard taskmasters. They do “whatever it takes” to keep the ship afloat and on course. They lash the crew to the oars, man the pumps and make liberal use of the cat o’nine tails. Red captains are elected when the crew need respite – they untie the rowers and even let some of them come up on deck to stretch their legs and see what life is like for the passengers. It was a Captain sailing under a red flag who gave the crew free access to the ship’s doctor, for example.

After a while, the passengers grew most comfortable sailing under a blue flag. Some of them felt a bit bad for the crew below, but it seemed very important for HMS Economy to keep progressing in the right direction, to speed along as fast as possible and not risk losing her way under a red flag. There was more dissent among the crew, although many of them also agreed that it was better to keep a blue flag so they would all benefit by reaching their destination (wherever that was) sooner and with the ship in a good condition, even if many of the crew were not.

So the red flags changed their approach. “Ok, y’know, alright,” they said, holding their arms out, palms turned trustworthily towards the audience. “We’ve been watching the blue Captains and we think they’ve got pretty much the right approach, actually. So we’re not going to unlash the crew from the oars any more. What we will do – and this is the crucial difference now – what we will do is let them have a tea break, as long as it doesn’t threaten to damage or slow down the ship. HMS Economy is what matters and we will look after her and her passengers really properly from now on.”

And this persuaded most of the passengers and the crew to trust the red flag, and it seemed as though the course was set for years to come. Life was much the same as it had been under the blue flag, but perhaps a little easier on the crew.

Then disaster came. Yes, the conditions were bad – other ships nearby were making the sea choppy. But HMS Economy herself, it seemed, was in far worse condition than anyone had realised. The blue flags began telling passengers that the red flags had failed to fix the sails while the sun was shining; that we were heading straight for the rocks; that we would all be sunk.

Everyone panicked. The ageing figurehead was called upon to support a Captain and First Mate, sailing under a flag that was mostly blue but had a bit of orange on it, too. The crew were lashed harder to their oars, the cat o’nine tails came out more often, and all hands were put to the pumps (except the top-deck passengers who, quite discomfited by the thought of the ship sinking, were reassured and given lavish new cabins with TVs and inflatable life-savers built in to the walls).

Five years later, HMS Economy was becalmed. She seemed in less immediate danger of capsizing, although the Captain and First Mate had done relatively little to repair her, but she just wasn’t making any headway. Some of the passengers and crew began to regret having been so harsh on the rowers below decks. They thought HMS Economy would probably have survived just as well under a red flag, and without so much harm to the crew – and maybe there hadn’t even been that many rocks. Perhaps it was time to go back to a red flag?

But although lots of people were chattering about this – also the unexpected rise of the yellow flags (dour engineers, for the most part) – it seems most of the passengers and crew meanwhile had quietly put the blame on the First Mate, and quietly believed the blue flags when they said this was no time to risk the ship by hoisting a red flag. Why, a red Captain might fail to get HMS Economy moving again at all, or if they did, it would be in the wrong direction, or on to the rocks – like they did the last time. Better trust the blues.

And so the people voted and the ageing figurehead had to let the Captain keep sailing under a blue flag (no orange required any more). And the Captain vowed to work the crew harder, and make the passengers more comfortable, and to keep HMS Economy sailing on to glory.

That’s the story, then; but it is all codswallop.

The economy is the sea, not the ship

I don’t really believe that politicians have anything like as much influence over the direction and speed of the economy as they claim. Labour didn’t ‘break’ the economy in 2008, any more than a sailor can ‘break’ the ocean. Equally, the Coalition government deserves as much credit for the recovery as a sailor gets for a storm dying down and the sun coming out. The ship they sail is not the economy; rather, the economy is the water that keeps our ship and all of us afloat.

This is not to say that governing is as simple as setting a course and sticking to it. Clearly, the nature of the economy is that it has swells and currents, tides and tsunamis. A good captain is one who maintains the ship and responds well to changes in the weather, keeping the people safe from the sharks in the economical ocean all around.

By confusing the nature of the ship (deliberately or otherwise), the Conservatives make HMS Economy the be-all and end-all of government. If HMS Economy is faring well, they claim, then she is carrying us all to a brighter place. But HMS Economy is a ghost ship, and she has no destination for there is no endpoint to the economic journey of any country. All she can do is continue to push on, keep the crew slaving below deck and the passengers comfortable above. Heaven forfend she should slow down, or even drop anchor, and let everyone enjoy the view.

Labour’s failure in 2015 was not that they couldn’t persuade people they were capable of captaining the ship – though they signally failed to do that, too. The real failure was that they didn’t even try to show us that HMS Economy is a con.

We do not exist to keep the economy afloat. The economy has the potential to drown any of us, and so the ship we have built – the state; HMS Britain, I suppose – is a means of surviving the chaotic waves of economic fortune. The ship exists to keep us afloat. And given that the ship has no destination, there is no need to lash ourselves to the oars in order to maintain a notional speed of growth – we could just as easily hoist the sails, come up on deck and maybe even engage in some water sports (while the Captain keeps an eye out for any banks of stormy cloud on the horizon, of course).

Perhaps that is more akin to the narrative the SNP (not dour engineers at all, of course) offered this time round with their anti-austerity plans. Perhaps so many people want to shake off the red and blue flags because they stick too slavishly to the frightening ghost story of HMS Economy and sea monsters and rocks. But for all the ‘success’ Labour had beating the blue flags at their own game from 1997 to 2008, most of the electorate still seems prone to panic and vote for the blue flags at the first sign of trouble.

I really hope Labour choose a leader who can take this opportunity now to undermine the game: make the red flag stand for real change, and put the quality of people’s lives ahead of the health of the economy, which the government really can’t affect very much anyway. Paint over the ship’s old misleading nameplate, relaunch her with a new bottle of Champagne (or maybe Scotch), and focus on her true purpose – to carry the people so we can live our lives free from the risk of ‘drowning’ in the economy, not enslaved to it.

God bless this ship, and all who sail in her!

Election party!

“Who will win the General Election?” seems to be the way the question is being framed by a lot of commentators as we approach polling day. With the voting surveys inconclusive, various people are jostling for pre-emptive positions on what they would consider to be a ‘legitimate’ government. In particular, I’ve noticed Nick Clegg, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, talking as if he will again be the ‘kingmaker’ who gets to choose which of the two larger parties to prop up. Seems rather presumptuous, given that his is unlikely to still be the third largest party and he cannot be sure that he will even be an MP any more this time next week. A man who says the party with the most seats in Parliament deserves first go at forming a government must surely admit that the third-largest party should get first go at choosing which of the big two they want to prop up – and that looks like being the SNP, not the Lib Dems.

But all this talk of ‘legitimacy’ is ridiculous anyway. Nobody formally ‘wins’ a British General Election under the current constitution. The ‘winner’ is decided de facto by dint of being able to form a stable government (with the Queen’s blessing). Now, yes, the easiest way to do that is to have more than 50% of the seats be won by your political stablemates (and yes, each seat can be ‘won’ by getting the most votes in the constituency) – but this outright outcome, the most common in 20th century elections, entails a covert process of basically the same kind of horse-trading and compromise that we’ll see more publicly after the hung parliament expected on Friday morning.

Party mix

Our political parties are not homogeneous blocs of precisely like-minded people. They are full of factions, wings and outliers that their leaders have bargained, bribed and browbeaten into just enough stability to unite under one political brand. Given these loose associations of political affiliations, it is hardly surprising that the lines separating a Tory from being a UKipper are pretty thin. There are LibDems who could just as easily be Conservatives, and others who could be socialists or maybe even Greens. The SNP’s surge in support seems to have come from a lot of young new Scottish voters looking for something different, but it also owes a lot to (older) people simply changing allegiance from Labour (and other parties, too).

So why is everyone falling over themselves to rule out this, stake a claim to that, and declare the other ‘illegitimate’? Well, they still have 650 elections to win, naturally. But when the votes are cast, negotiations between the parties after the General Election will be no less valid or unbecoming than those within the parties in all the years before it.

Unwritten laws

I rather like the pragmatism of the tacit UK constitution. I read today that John Griffith, an LSE academic (and friend of Ralph Miliband), once said that our constitution is “no more and no less than what happens”, which I think means we have our national institutions and they relate to each other, and those institutions and relationships may change over time, but as long as they still relate to each other and to us, and function, that’s what matters. There are rarely any hard and fast rules, therefore, but this would actually allow for quite radical solutions to problems, too, if the parties involved were willing to be sufficiently bold.

There is no rule, for instance, that a bloc of Scottish nationalist MPs cannot support another party as the UK government, even if that government would not be able to rule without their support. There is certainly no rule that Nick Clegg gets to decide who should be the next Prime Minister. And there is no rule that the party with the most seats (but not a majority) should get first dibs on trying to form a government.

Because ‘winning’ a British General Election is not about getting the most votes or the most seats; it is a question of pragmatism alone: Can you muster enough support to be a viable Prime Minister in Parliament?

Horses for courses

If you don’t like that, and you want to vote directly for your government, well the first thing you need to do is not live in a (tacit) constitutional monarchy. For now, you vote for your constituency representative, your MP; the MPs go to Westminster and each chooses a leader from among all the other MPs to back. These alliances are usually forged over years and formalised through political parties, but alliances forged in the days ahead will be just as ‘legitimate’, although they don’t necessarily come with a branded party stamp. Then the leader who can command the most MPs goes to the Queen and gets the royal nod to be PM (and they are Her Majesty’s PM, strictly speaking, and not ours).

My point is that political parties are a convenient way to judge which potential PM your constituency candidate will back in Parliament, but they do not define the limits of who can work with whom in politics. A coalition of all parties except the one that gets the most (but not a majority of) MPs, for example, would indeed be a legitimate government if it could keep everyone involved sufficiently happy – just as everyone in a single party would have to be kept happy if they were to stay in power. Political divisions and makeshift coalitions are fluid and free – as free as we are to change our allegiance and our vote in each General Election should we so choose. So how will you choose tomorrow?

Update: 7/5/15

Another point I forgot to make is that no one should think the ‘national vote’ constitutes useful data. You cannot aggregate the tallies of 650 separate elections and think that everyone would vote the same way if they were voting directly for a government. Under the current system, that would be an illegitimate way to argue for power.

Power and politics

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

Less than a week to the UK General Election. I haven’t been thinking about it a great deal* – I know who I’m going to vote for in my constituency, and I believe in letting the votes be cast before futilely arguing over who should make a deal with whom to form the next government…

What has interested me is the perennial (or quinquennial) focus on voter apathy and the way politicians and celebrities (and people who are neither) exhort anyone who will listen to vote, to make a difference, to have their say. But voting in a General Election is not a powerful act. When I go to put an X on the ballot paper, it is not with a feeling of political influence coursing through my fingers and that stubby little pencil, it is more with a feeling like the one you get when you look at the picture made famous by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot that is Earth, suspended in a sunbeam somewhere in the universe. It’s famously humbling, but also rather thrilling, in a way, to be so insignificant!

There are 64 million people in the UK, some 45 million or so of whom are eligible to vote (though far from all do, of course). My constituency alone has an electorate of some 75,000. One vote does not – should not – make “a difference” to the outcome. Those who decide not to vote because theirs will not be decisive in determining the outcome ask too much. It is, after all, the tallies of all our votes, the collective counts, not the individual Xs, that are the expression of democracy in an election.

Politics is not easy

Democracy is built on compromise. Whether it is holding your nose to vote at all, or choosing a candidate despite their party, or vice versa, or – for those who are elected – to give ground to your allies or opponents in order to make gains elsewhere. So for me, voting, and the majorities and minorities that it inevitably defines, isn’t really about influence or power, not at the level of the individual, anyway. Holding a vote lets you know (in theory, in a world without tactical voting, which I dislike**) how many people you have yet to persuade before you do get the right to exercise some democratic power (if only our politicians were more interested in persuading voters than pandering to them, though***).

Those who complain that voting is pointless and powerless have missed this point: it is not voting that gives power to the people, but rather it is opportunities to participate. If you don’t like the options on your ballot paper, and cannot bring yourself to compromise, it is both possible and incumbent on you in this democracy to create an alternative that you can stomach. Find others who agree with your politics, or persuade others that you are right. Persuade more people to join you, and you have a chance to find a candidate that you can vote for. It might even be you. If you can’t persuade people you are right, maybe you’re not.

Why vote?

Voting is a vital part of democracy, but not because it is de facto an act of democratic power. Voting can help you to know your own mind and to find out how many people agree with you (if everyone voted ‘honestly’). That’s important, but the implication is that to actually wield real democratic power, you must do more than cast a vote each time you are asked: you have to be active, engage with other voters, listen and argue with them, and perhaps compromise a little.

My vote is not going to change the world on its own. Nor should it. I still think everyone who is eligible should vote because it lets the rest of us know where we all stand. But if we want to exercise democratic power, we have to stop bleating about the pointlessness of voting and make an effort far greater than it takes to get to the polling station and write an X on a piece of paper.

So I would say vote precisely because it won’t alter the outcome, because it is ‘merely’ the reckoning. And if you actually crave the power to change this democracy, you will have to work for it and find it beyond the polling booth.

* Unlike Simon Kane and Tassos Stevens, for example, who have been thinking about the election most excellently, thank you very much…

** Of course, this is the problem, which is that the system has become a game and our politicians know how to play it and, if not how to win it, then at least how to stop other people from winning. Maybe we should change the system – but to one that doesn’t inherently advantage political machines (aka “parties”), please…

*** Naturally, this implies that I should try to persuade politicians to persuade me, but I’m not after power, and I’m not sure I’m right about any of this anyway…

Story-telling

Tuesday and roses and coffee and a chance encounter near a sewing machine where my moustaches drooped that time and you said I was weird and I decided you meant quirky and then I held that word – quirky – against you.

I work in a team of nine people – editors, copyeditors, writers, an art director – and we are currently trying to work out exactly what it is that we want to offer the business we work for. We all have our particular skills but when we all work together, it tends to be in the service of creating compelling narratives about or for our employer. Stories, in other words.

The key

What do you open? A door, of course; an ordinary door, an unimportant door that leads to a walled garden of roses, opened only on Wednesdays.

We had an away day recently to talk about what stories we want to tell and how we can best make use of our combined story-telling skills. Part of the day included a writing exercise in which we first wrote for a minute or so, I think – just writing, anything that came into our heads. My minute’s worth is at the top of this post.

Who owns you? A woman and a man and the door, I suppose.

Then we had to choose an object from a collection of things on the table. We had to come up with three or more questions to ask this object, and then we had to provide its answers. I chose a key.

What are you worth? I am not the only key – I have a number of twins or triplets or clones. If one of us is lost, nothing much changes. If all are lost, the garden is closed, the roses unsmelled, the thorns unblooded, the path untrod, the relationship neglected. The walls would eventually crumble and only the locked door would remain, keeping no gate, defining no boundary.